The history of water, anywhere in the world is a special story. For the City of Los Angeles, and that of the San Fernando Valley, one name, among others, stands out. William Mulholland.
In 1878, William Mulholland went to work for the Los Angeles City Water Company. Although he possessed no formal training in engineering, Mulholland pursued an intense personal interest in geology, hydraulics and engineering by educating himself at the public library. He was a ditch tender, a zanjero himself, though the water system had progressed from ditches and hollowed logs to include a domestic service system with reservoirs and water mains. But the zanjas served the city for 35 more years, carrying water to water wheels which lifted the water for gravity flow to homes and fields.
By 1886, at the age of 31, he had become the private Los Angeles City Water Company’s superintendent. The system he oversaw included 300 miles of mains, six major reservoirs, infiltration galleries, and pumping plants. Three years later, in 1889, the company installed its first water meter at Mulholland’s instigation.
In 1902, at a cost of $2 million, the City of Los Angeles purchased the Los Angeles City Water Company. At the time, the city had a population of more than 100,000, where it had doubled more than four times in 30 years.
The new Los Angeles Bureau of Water Works and Supply (which would become the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power in the 1920’s) now had its first superintendent and chief engineer. Mulholland also became the first American engineer to build a dam utilizing hydraulic sluicing (Silver Lake Reservoir, 1906). This new method attracted the attention of engineers and dam-builders nationwide.
Mulholland clearly could see that a growing Los Angeles would soon need much more water than it had available. After much maneuvering and politicking by himself and others, Mulholland realized the dream of opening a new water source by tapping into Eastern Sierra water from the Owens Valley. He personally organized and supervised up to 3,900 construction workers at a time to build the 233-mile Los Angeles Aqueduct over six years. The massive project was completed ahead of time and under budget ($24.5 million in municipal bonds were approved by voters for the project). It was the largest and most difficult municipal engineering project in U.S. history at the time.
On November 5, 1913, after an elaborate ceremony, water was released from the aqueduct into the San Fernando Valley. Mulholland declared to exuberant crowds at the ceremony, "There it is. Take it." The achievement gave the City of Los Angeles the ability to grow beyond a population of 500,000 and leverage of water to expand city territory into the San Fernando Valley and other surrounding communities (the cities of San Fernando, Santa Monica and Beverly Hills held out).
For more information on the history of water in the San Fernando Valley and The Museum, please visit history@TheMuseumSFV.org or Contact page.